All Shall be Well: When the Wrath of God is Good News
Advent with Lady Julian Week 3
The first time I told God I didn’t want to believe in God, I was immediately terrified. So sure I was going to be sent promptly to hell, I knew I had to do something to reverse it.
I knelt trembling by my bed, clasped my shaking hands together and prayed what I had learned as the sinner’s prayer.
I was eleven or twelve years old at this point, and I had been a Christian all my life. So what caused this sudden need for re-conversion?
I had gotten extremely mad at my brother because he had been treating me unkindly, and in our broken household, there was no adult to go to for mediation of a sibling dispute. That only resulted in more unpleasantness all around. I had also been charged at some point with “keeping the peace.” The peace in that case meaning, “Don’t disturb the adults with the conflict, no matter what.” So in my precise way of thinking at the time, that meant I had to continuously forgive my brother no matter what. That day, I was so tired of it, I told God if this is what being a Christian meant, I didn’t want to believe in God any more.
Coffee, Shalom, and Everything Between is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
My relationship with God used to run on two tracks. On the one hand, I had the God who I would ask to come sit beside me when I was scared at night and hold my hand while I fell asleep and I had a sense of a real presence and calm that would overtake me. On the other, I had the God who violently dealt with wrongdoers, unrepentant sinners, and the like. And I was terrified of somehow becoming an unrepentant sinner. I loved God, and I was scared to death of God at the same time.
As I was working on this piece, I read part of it in my writing group, and one of my colleagues commented that I felt like I couldn’t go to my parents, so I took my frustration to God in that moment. And that is true, I did. The bifurcation of my relationship with God is encapsulated in that moment: I expressed myself fully to God, and then was immediately terrified of the ramifications.
Perhaps that’s why I identify so strongly with Julian as she seeks to understand what she saw in her revelations, and how she wrestles with where they conflict with what she learned from the church in her day.
Seeing a revelation of a God of love in a day where the church was preaching that the rounds of plague that were decimating the population every dozen years or so were God’s judgment for sin was already a radical statement. But in the chapters we’re looking at today, Julian goes even further and states, that “I saw no kind of anger in God” (Long text chapter 49). Some translations render that as “I saw no kind of wrath in God.”
The God I grew up with was definitely one you didn’t want to anger, one cut from the “this hurts me more than it hurts you” rationale before a beating kind of God. So what does it do for our relationship with God if God actually has no wrath?
Julian’s argument here is that if God was ever wrathful, even for a second, we would cease to exist because our existence is sustained by God’s love. For her, wrath is diametrically opposed to God’s love and God’s peace.
Father John-Julian says that Julian’s statement about wrath having no place is one of her most controversial because it “plainly conflicts with much of the Old Testament.” But his statement doesn’t exactly sit right with me. I can’t say for sure from the context of what he is writing about Julian, but it feels like he’s coming from a place where there’s a supposed divide between the “God of the Old Testament” and the “God of the New Testament.” The problem with that is that if God is the same God, then we need to reconcile all depictions of God.
Julian didn’t intend her Revelations to contradict Scripture, even if they did sometimes contradict church teaching in her day. And yet, even today, many of us have an idea that God is a God of wrath as well as a God of love. So can those two things actually coexist, or have we perhaps been missing something key that Julian spotted six hundred and fifty years ago?
Our Isaiah passage for this coming Sunday has us reading the words of the Servant/Messiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor.” Commentary author John N. Oswalt notes that the connotation here isn’t just about the financially poor “Rather, it speaks of all who are distressed and in trouble for any reason, including sin” (NICOT, Isaiah 40-66, p. 564-5).
If the Good News has always been for those who are oppressed and not for those who are “comfortable and in control,” what does this tell us about the nature of God?
We know that God offers salvation to everyone. No one is left out if God has anything to say about it. So then if God is including everyone, how does the Good News not get preached to the comfortable? When the year of the Lord’s favor is proclaimed, some people will still find themselves on the wrong side of the good news.
I believe the exclusion actually happens on our end, not on Gods. The comfortable don’t feel the need to change anything, and therefore, they can’t or won’t hear the Good News because the Good News is disruptive. For example, release of the prisoners (Isaiah 60:1) means a loss of profits for those benefiting from our for-profit incarceration systems. Those people will see the day of the Lord as a bad thing, but they don’t have to. They could participate in justice now, working to reform our systems instead of lobbying for longer and harsher sentences because, you guessed it, they profit more when there’s more people in jail.
God’s peace is not passive: it’s not accepting the status quo. God’s peace disrupts injustice, disrupts the systems of this world where inequity thrives, disrupts those in power. When the entire structure they bet their lives and livelihoods on gets upended, it will probably feel like they were on the receiving end of wrath. But were they? They were the ones who chose to align themselves with injustice, hoarding goods, resources, and power instead of working for justice and thriving for all.
I believe Julian is right, and that God’s wrath doesn’t actually exist. But when God comes to establish God’s reign and everything is made just, those aligned with injustice are going to be very unhappy.
So the question becomes one of alignment. How are we aligned in our lives now? Are we aligned with justice and mutual thriving and the other characteristics of the reign of God? In the end, God will be all in all. When the only thing left to die is death itself, when everything is made new and all are reconciled, how we experience God–as Love or as Wrath–is ultimately up to us. In chapter 53, Julian goes on to say, “Furthermore, he wills that we know that all the souls that shall be saved in heaven without end be knit in this knot, and one-d in this one-ing, and made holy in this holiness” (my modernization of the Paris text).
“I wish I could still believe in God, but I can’t be a Christian anymore because of ______” Fill-in-the-blank with racism, misogyny, homophobia, toxic capitalism, and so on. I’ve had this conversation with different people almost word-for-word over and over. White American Christianity has so defined God that many people cannot separate God from the toxic theology they were taught.
But this isn’t the God I see in the Bible. The Bible shows us a God meeting people where they are and nudging them towards justice and total thriving for all: shalom. The Bible details arcs of justice and societal reform. If we understand how radical those arcs were in the context of the day, we can extend them forward into the future and figure out how to work for justice, total thriving, and societal reformation in our day.
I grew up in that first world view. Come along, and I’ll tell you the story of how I escaped, and I’ll show you a theology that I believe paints a more accurate picture: a faith for the common good where everyone thrives and no one is left out.
Anna Elisabeth Howard writes highly caffeinated takes on shalom as a lens for everything from her front porch in Hendersonville, TN where she lives with her husband and two sons. She is a community organizer and movement chaplain with a background in youth and family ministry and is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. An avid hiker and backpacker, many thoughts start somewhere in the middle of the woods, or under a waterfall. She is a regular contributer to Earth & Altar and her latest book is Inward Apocalypse: Uncovering a Faith for the Common Good.
Join the subscriber chat! If you already have the app, just go to the new chat section, if not, download the app here.
I’m one of the facilitators of Freedom Road’s Global Writers’ Group. If you’ve been looking for a community of writers to boost you to the next step of your writing goals—wherever you are in that process—join us!
Join the community: